A pair of academics from Durham University in the United Kingdom have discovered an 827-year-old reference to an unusual weather-related phenomenon in an obscure medieval English text.
While scrutinizing the monastery chronicles of a 12th century Benedictine monk named Gervase, who was assigned to the Christ Church Cathedral Priory in Canterbury, physicist Brian Tanner and historian Giles Gasper came upon a striking description of an apparent manifestation of ball lightning. This is the label given to mysterious shining orbs of light that are reported to sometimes appear in the sky, near the ground, and even indoors just before, during, or after thunderstorms.
Extract from the Chronicle of Gervase of Canterbury (MS R.4.11, p.324; Trinity College) where the medieval monk describes the ball lightning phenomenon. This is the earliest known description of ball lightning in England to have been found. ( The Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge )
Oldest Ball Lightning Mention: June 7, 1195 AD
According to Professors Tanner and Gaspar, this is by far the oldest mention of ball lightning ever found in a manuscript written in England. In fact, the description by the Benedictine Gervase predates the next-earliest reference by nearly 450 years.
In his chronicle entry for the date of June 7, 1195, Gervase enthusiastically wrote that “a marvelous sign descended near London .” He stated that he first saw a dense and dark cloud that was emitting a white substance, which eventually coalesced into a spherical shape directly beneath the cloud. From this condensed shape a fiery glowing globe soon emerged, after which it fell toward the earth over the River Thames .
Tanner and Gaspar are confident that this fascinating reference is to ball lightning.
A Incredible Natural Phenomena of Ball Lightning. Shot in Maastricht the Netherlands on 28 June 2011. (Joe Thomissen, CC BY-SA 3.0 )
“Gervase’s description of a white substance coming out of the dark cloud, falling as a spinning fiery sphere and then having some horizontal motion is very similar to historic and contemporary descriptions of ball lightning,” Professor Tanner said in a Durham University press release .
“Given that Gervase appears to be a reliable reporter, we believe that his description of the fiery globe on the Thames on 7 June 1195 was the first fully convincing account of ball lightning anywhere,” Professor Gaspar added.
Presumably, other scholars who’ve examined Gervase’s chronicles over the years missed the reference to ball lightning because they weren’t looking for it. Assuming Brian Tanner and Giles Gaspar are right they’ve certainly made a remarkable discovery, since the previous oldest report of a ball lightning sighting in England was recorded in Widecombe, Devon in the year 1638.
A 1901 depiction of ball lightning. ( Public domain )
What is Ball Lightning?
Ball lightning is a most curious and poorly understood natural phenomenon. It manifests in the form of circular or oval luminescent orbs that generally appear in conjunction with bad weather. It is the latter association that led to their naming (although they are almost certainly not a form of true lightning).
These glowing balls may rise, fall, sweep, and swoop across or above the landscape, or sometimes even pass through glass and enter indoor environments. Ball lightning can vary in size between a few inches or centimeters to several yards or meters in diameter. It may flash in and out of existence in a second or two or be observed dancing about for 10 seconds or more. A globe of ball lightning may disappear in a burst of light that resembles a sudden noiseless explosion, and on occasion the smell of sulfur will permeate the air after its disappearance.
Scientists know that ball lightning is some type of unusual atmospheric electromagnetic phenomenon. But after decades of study, there is still no explanation for ball lightning that satisfies everyone.
Where Does Ball Lightning Come From? Theories Abound
Since nature abhors a vacuum, it is hardly shocking to learn that many scientists have developed theories about the origins of ball lightning.
For example, in an article published in 2016 in Scientific Reports , researchers from Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China proposed that ball lightning is created when microwave radiation emitted during conventional lightning strikes become trapped inside a plasma bubble (plasma is superheated matter filled with negatively and positively charged particles). The circulating microwaves would continue to generate additional plasma for a few extra seconds, allowing the bubble to keep glowing and bouncing around for a bit longer.
Another interesting theory about the origin of ball lightning was published in the journal Optik in 2019 by physicist Vladimir Torchigin from the Russian Academy of Sciences. Torchigin has developed his own version of the bubble theory, which states that ball lightning orbs are made from photons of light trapped inside simple air bubbles that photons produce themselves in the intensely-heated atmospheric conditions that follow a lightning strike.
While neither of these theories portrays ball lightning as an actual form of lightning, it is interesting to note that both identify lightning strikes as the precursors to ball lightning development.
These are just a couple recent hypotheses that have been published that attempt to solve the ball lightning mystery. Other theories stay within the bounds of science are much more exotic , proposing that ball lightning is a visible manifestation of reactions that involve dark matter , antimatter, or even micro (extremely tiny) black holes.
As long as the question remains open, other scientists are likely to propose new hypotheses to explain how these strange and delightful balls of lights can pop into and out of existence so unpredictably.
Whether plasma bubbles or not, ball lightning is very rare and still not quite understood. ( Евгений Вершинин / Adobe Stock)
Whether Plasma Bubble or Ghost, Ball Lightning is Here to Stay
Ball lightning is assumed to be rather rare. But it may not be.
For every witness that reports a sighting, there may be 10 or 50 or 100 more who never tell anyone outside their immediate family or friends what they’ve seen. They may have no idea who to report it to or may fear they won’t be believed if they report something so strange and unusual. Many people may dismiss their sightings altogether, believing what they saw was a meteor, reflected car lights, swamp gas , or flocks of fireflies flying in formation.
Because of its mysterious nature, ball lightning is occasionally linked to paranormal phenomena. Depending on their size, behavior, lifespan, and the context within which they’re seen, these balls of anomalous light may be identified as UFOs, as the spirits of the departed, or as living beings formed exclusively from plasma.
Ball lightning entering via the chimney (1886). ( Srbauer / Public domain)
At the other end of the spectrum, they are sometimes dismissed as hallucinations (if reports are anecdotal) or hoaxes (if there is photographic evidence) by the skeptical community. Given the fact that ball lightning has been around for ages, such theorizing seems inadequate, although it certainly could be accurate in some cases.
The mystery of ball lightning may never be solved definitively. But people have apparently been seeing it for centuries and perhaps even for thousands of years, and whether it is explained or not people will still undoubtedly be reporting it (excitedly and with a sense of wonder) in future decades and beyond.
Top image: Blue glowing ball lightning, a phenomenon that was reported in medieval times, with the earliest English reference now confirmed to be 450 years before the previous known mention in an English historical text. Source: sakkmesterke / Adobe Stock
By Nathan Falde